Framed by the majestic Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Taos, New Mexico is a place made of dreams; there’s sprawling desert, unspoiled alpine wilderness and a sun-baked adobe town, steeped in American history. The town is home to three cultures; the Tiwa-speaking Indians, and the descendants of the Spanish and Anglo settlers who came later, all of whose unique customs and traditions have blended together. Imagine a place where the Old West is still very much alive, and that would be Taos. It’s a miracle the town isn’t overridden by tourists.
I’d heard so much about Taos over the years, and I was itching to go. So recently, when my boyfriend suggested a trip out west, we planned a 4-day vacation to northern New Mexico to see what all the fuss was about. We flew to Albuquerque from DC, then rented a car and drove up into the mountains. It took us approximately 2 and ½ hours to reach Taos, during which the scenery became increasingly beautiful with each subsequent mile.
Taos is situated at an elevation of 6,967 feet in what is referred to as ‘high desert,’ just a stone’s throw away from the Rio Grande Gorge. It occupies a diverse land area, encompassing thousands of acres of verdant farmland, deeply forested mountains (including a world-class ski resort) and expansive sagebrush meadows. The tallest mountain in New Mexico, Wheeler Peak (altitude 13,161 feet), is one of the many mountains that tower over the town.
From Albuquerque, we approached Taos from the south, bypassing Santa Fe on a road that wound us through the Rio Grande Gorge and then offered us panoramic views of the Taos mesa. Shrubby sagebrush stretched for miles, a mind blowing gray-green canvas covering seemingly limitless open space. In the distance, we could see the massive Sangre de Cristo Mountains looming purple-black on the horizon. As we neared the town, we pulled off the road just to take in the enormity of it all.
Our first stop, after dropping our bags at our rental home on the mesa, was the town’s main focal point, the centuries-old Taos Plaza, a reddish-brown adobe structure shaped like a U. Erected over 400 years ago, the rambling complex was built for defense, with windows and doors facing into the plaza and limited entrances (that could be easily barricaded.) Today, the Plaza still retains its original shape and is teeming with galleries and shops. We spent a leisurely hour perusing the many paintings, metalwork, pottery, woven fabrics and Native American arts and crafts that were for sale.
In fact, art has been part of the fabric of Taos life for centuries, beginning with the Native Americans, whose artists created designs based on their spiritual connections to the surrounding natural world. In the 1500’s, Spanish settlers added to the mix by bringing adobe building and Christian iconography (along with churches) to Taos. They also introduced new materials such as metal, wool, paints and dyes.
Then, in 1915, a small group of American painters founded the Taos Society of Artists. Anxious to record the vanishing west, they took up residence in the town, painting outdoors and sending their works on traveling shows throughout the country. Their paintings and drawings revealed the exotic scenery and landscape of northern New Mexico as well as the people who lived there, unofficially kicking off the area’s first tourist trade. Today, the Taos artists’ community is still thriving and is a vital part of downtown.
After touring the Plaza, we drove the short distance to Taos Pueblo, an ancient pueblo belonging to the area’s Native American tribe. The multi-storied adobe structure, a combination of many individual homes, is the largest surviving pueblo in the United States. It is believed to have been constructed sometime between 1000 – 1500 A.D. It is also where Taos got its name.
The Taos community of Native Americans is known to be very private and conservative, which explained the many signs prohibiting the taking of pictures of the residents. I stopped to take a photo of the pueblo (which was permitted) and was approached by a woman who asked me, “Tell me, what is it that you see?” Taken aback, I managed to blurt out something to the effect of the shape and color of the pueblo against the mountain was beautiful, which seemed to satisfy her.
But, we left the reservation wondering if we had grasped the true meaning of her question.
We woke up on our first day in Taos and decided to take a hike.
Leafing through the Taos Hiking Guide, we chose the Manzanita Trail, which is located along the winding mountain road, NM 150, about 4 miles from Taos Ski Valley. We drove 11 miles out of town to the trailhead in the spectacular 1.5 million acre Carson National Forest. As we pulled off onto a gravel parking area, we glimpsed a rocky path leading up and away into the woods.
We must have missed the part in the guidebook that listed the trail as “strenuous.” Manzanita Trail climbed steadily through thick forests of Douglas fir, blue spruce and Ponderosa pines for a distance of about 4 miles (going from 8,356 feet to 11,773 feet). For much of the way, a boisterous mountain stream accompanied us, forcing us to occasionally forgo the path to hop from rock to rock to ford it. After a final steep ascent, we arrived on a narrow rocky ridge and drank in the magnificent views of Mt. Wheeler and the Taos Ski Valley. It was definitely worth the trek.
After we returned to the car, we continued down NM Highway 150, eventually reaching Taos Ski Valley, a small village and ski resort located at the base of Wheeler Peak. At an elevation of 9,207 feet, the alpine town is the highest municipality in the U.S. Perhaps this is why it’s so sparsely inhabited: As of 2014 its population was a scant 69.
And in fact, there seemed to be no one about, except for a large number of construction vehicles that a local resident unhappily informed us were part of a big renovation. (We later learned that a developer has bought the resort, torn it down and is completely rebuilding it.) We grabbed a quick lunch at the Stray Dog Cantina in what was left of the village, and then headed up Kachina Peak on a very bumpy road to the Bavarian Lodge, a popular German restaurant that is perched mid-mountain.
From the Bavarian you can take a chairlift (Lift 4) much further up the mountain towards Kachina Peak. The lift climbs steeply for a little over 15 minutes, offering dizzying views of the expert-only slopes. Once at the top, we could see the newly completed Kachina Peak Lift leading to the summit.
An incredible feat of high-altitude engineering (involving the use of helicopters to bring in the component parts), the triple-seated Kachina Peak Lift rises a staggering 1,100 vertical feet in 5 minutes to the peak. It is one of the highest chairlifts in North America. Squinting into the sun, we could just barely make out the landing platform on the summit. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) on the day of our visit, the lift was closed.
That night, we ate dinner at El Meze, an upscale mix of Spanish, Mediterranean and Southwestern fare served al fresco in an 1847 adobe hacienda. We dined on delicious grilled whole trout with lemon and cilantro, and house made pasta with local fresh greens and vegetables.
As the evening temperatures fell (a typical aspect of the desert), we wrapped ourselves in blankets the staff conveniently had on hand and watched the sun set over the valley. An otherworldly reddish hue, known as “alpenglow” enveloped the distant peaks and gradually faded to grey, then was dark.
On Sunday morning we drove northwest about 10 miles on Rt. 64 to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. The massive steel arch spans 1,280 feet across the gorge and is one of America’s highest and most famous bridges (having appeared in several films including Natural Born Killers, Twins and Terminator Salvation.)
There’s ample parking on either side from where you can view the bulk of the awe-inspiring structure. There are also several observation platforms on the bridge that cantilever out from the roadway. We joined the small group of tourists holding their breaths and looked straight down. Far below us, we could see the silver-white Rio Grande cutting a frothy ribbon through the gorge.
Later in the day, a brief rainstorm swept through the area, releasing a powerful, earthy smell from the mesa. We ran outside as the storm clouds cleared and inhaled the intoxicating aroma of the sagebrush, a phenomenon particular to the desert, especially after a rainfall. The otherworldly, turpentine-like smell hung in the air for a while, and then dissipated with the returning sun.
In the late afternoon, we visited the tiny village of Arroya Seco, located about 7 miles from Taos. Settled in 1804 as an agricultural community, today Seco (which is how locals refer to it) is home to small specialty shops, restaurants and a local ice cream store, Taos Cow, voted one of the top 10 ice cream companies in the U.S. by Bon Appetit Magazine. The secret apparently lies in the ingredients: the ice cream is made from New Mexican milk untarnished by growth hormones or chemicals. I gorged on a delicious scoop of creamy lavender and my boyfriend inhaled a cup of pistachio and white chocolate chunks drizzled with chocolate sauce.
Yes, we were full, but we still found room for an early dinner at Sabroso, a restaurant and bar in Seco known for its “ fresh-squeezed lime juice margaritas” (which they proudly proclaim on a big sign stuck in a tire placed halfway out onto the road.) We sat outside under a covered patio and sampled a few of their outstanding concoctions including, the Prickly Pear, a visually stunning pink and green drink made with prickly pear puree, fresh squeezed lime juice, silver tequila and Cointreau (rimmed with sugar instead of salt) and a couple excellent variations on the traditional Perfect Margarita, topped off with, you guessed it, fresh lime juice.
While we were there, a thunderstorm popped up and big bolts of lightening lit up the night sky. As we drove home across the desert, the heavy black clouds lifted just slightly at the edge of the horizon to reveal the brilliant orange remains of the dying sun. From the mesa, we smelled the alluring aroma of the sagebrush.
On our last day, we elected to try the hike to Williams Lake, one of the most popular trails in Taos County. The trailhead is located in the Taos Ski Valley. Although the trail officially starts at the ski village, most people access it further up the mountain from a parking area next to the Bavarian.
The rocky trail starts out on privately held lands, and then officially begins in the forest, where a wood sign indicates that Williams Lake is 2 miles ahead. We joined a small group of hikers and climbed steadily on a soft and spongy forest trail through deep green groves of Douglas fir, blue spruce and lodgepole pines. As we wound our way up the mountain, we passed meadows of native wildflowers (some nearly as tall as we were) and gigantic fields of large, lichen-covered boulders.
When we finally emerged from the forest at a little over 11,000 feet, the view down to the lake was jaw dropping. Green-black in tone, Williams Lake lay hundreds of feet below us in a rocky basin surrounded by the craggy peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Since we had eaten just about everything there was to eat, we spent our last night in Taos on the back patio of our beautiful adobe rental enjoying the sounds and sites of the mesa.
Photo of Plaza, wikipedia.com
All other photos, Carole Funger/Here By Design